By Jeff Peek / Hagerty.com
It’s amazing how a car can make its mark on history. People are unlikely to ever forget the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR 722 that Stirling Moss drove to a record-setting victory in the ’55 Mille Miglia, the 1968 Highland Green Ford Mustang in which Steve McQueen chased bad guys in the movie Bullitt, and James Bond’s 1965 Aston Martin DB5.
And then there are cars that aren’t necessarily remembered for what they accomplished or what movie they appeared in; they’re admired simply because they’ve stood the test of time.
We shared the story of one of those cars in March: a rare 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder that Old Crow Speed Shop owner Bobby Green uncovered in a storage container high atop a hill in a remote area of Orange County, California. And no, the Porsche-one of only 90 aluminum-bodied 550s built-wasn’t in any traditional sense a “barn find.” Its owners not only knew where it was hidden, they knew what they had.
Still, serial no. 550-0069 has a story worth telling, especially now what we’ve turned up more of this car’s wonderful backstory. What little we knew when the news first broke a month ago came through a Facebook post and a short film created by Green’s friend, Blue Nelson, about the 550’s reawakening. They told us that Les Gunnerson purchased the 550 Spyder in 1963 from Loretta Turnbull Richert, who shared the car with her brother Ray in the late 1950s before buying it herself. The siblings raced it in Hawaii.
Of course, the story goes deeper than that, and the details eventually found us. First, Green reached out to us to fill in a few gaps. Then, longtime motorsports photographer Allen R. Kuhn sent us an email suggesting that back in the day he may have captured some images of the 550 on the track, but he’d have to go through his archives to be sure. Both men came through-big time.
“It started with a completely random phone call from a friend of mine, Grant Peterson, one of the founders of the Born-Free bike show,” Green says. “He’d been in contact with a family whose father had owned a bunch of motorcycles, so he went to check them out. In one of the containers there were five or six bikes, along with the Spyder-two of the bikes were actually hanging above the car. He doesn’t really know anything about cars, so he asked about the Spyder. They told him they were going to sell it if he knew anybody who might be interested in buying it.”
Peterson’s first call was to Green. “He asked, ‘Do you know any Porsche big ballers?’ And I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I do.'”
Although Green says he was “super skeptical” and figured that the car was just a fiberglass reproduction of a 550, he went to check it out. He recalls looking at the car closely, examining its scratched paint and tapping on the body panels to determine if they were aluminum or fiberglass. Even after admitting to himself that “I think this thing is completely real,” he called a Porsche expert in Oregon and asked if he could authenticate it.
“This guy is so into it that he still owns the Porsche that his parents brought him home from the hospital in,” Green says. “He just happened to be in town, so we went back up there and we rolled the car out again.” The answer was the same. It was the real deal. Gunnerson’s daughter Carol and her husband, Craig Smithback, also had two large photo albums that included pictures and a meticulous collection of records, including a letter from Dr. Ferdinand Porsche confirming the car was indeed 550-0069.
The original used-car ad for the Porsche read “minus engine,” and Les Gunnerson bought the 550 for $1200-about $10,300 today. He eventually tracked down the original four-cam, flat-four engine (no. 0075) and made the car whole again.
Gunnerson’s family threw out a price that Green knew he couldn’t afford, but he figured he could facilitate a deal with someone else. “They said, ‘The first person to offer $4.5 million gets it,'” Green says. “It then became a race to sell it, and we really wanted to be the ones who got it done. We’re underdogs in the high-end car market, but we were determined.”
Green says he made one phone call and found the car’s eventual buyer, a collector from Holland. Although there were some bumps along the way-for example, the buyer was unable to fly to the U.S. to examine the car himself-a deal was eventually consummated in March 2021.
Green says a filmmaking friend, Blue Nelson, didn’t want to let this rare opportunity slip past without the cameras rolling, so Green, Nelson, and Peterson spent a couple of additional days with the car, recreating its “discovery” and then actually bringing it down the hill from its longtime storage container.
“I actually miss the car, I really do,” Green says with a laugh. “I spent so many days with it, taking photos of it, filming it, looking at it, appreciating it. I was never really a Porsche guy before, but I fell in love with it.”
The 550 also left a lasting impression on photographer Kuhn, who began taking pictures at California race tracks as a teenager in the 1950s. His photos of 550-0069, shot at Palm Springs and Santa Barbara in 1956, document important historical pieces of the car’s fascinating puzzle.
“I don’t have many images; my archive is about 5000 negatives,” Kuhn says. “I didn’t go to all the races. I never went to Europe … but I was fortunate to shoot the golden age of sports car racing in America-1955 to 1965. I feel blessed.”
According to type550.com, the Porsche was originally ordered by Albert Hosking of Pasadena, California, and completed on October 14, 1955. Originally white, it was painted red and wore #118 during Hosking’s ownership. The car’s first race was at Nassau Speed Week in December 1955, where drivers Jean-Pierre Kunstle and Johnny Mantz placed third. Kunstle later raced it at Torrey Pines, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, and Pomona, and scored several podium finishes.
Ray Turnbull bought the 550 in April 1957 and shipped it to Hawaii for the Hawaiian International Sports Car Week, where he shared driving duties with his sister, a former boat racing champion. After buying the car herself, Loretta drove the 550 to a number of victories into the early ’60s.
Green admits he thinks of the Spyder daily. “I felt sad when I watched it drive off on that truck, but it’s definitely going to a good home,” he says. “I know that there are plenty of Porsche fanatics in America, but in Europe everybody is fanatical about Porsche. It feels like it’s going to the right place.”
What a road it traveled to get there.
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